Libelle (literary genre)
A libelle is a political pamphlet or book which slanders a public figure. Libelles held particular significance in France under the Ancien Régime, especially during the eighteenth century, when the pamphlets’ attacks on the monarchy became both more numerous and venomous. In recent years, cultural historian Robert Darnton has written on the libelles, arguing for the subversive power that the libelles of the late eighteenth century exercised in undermining monarchical authority.
The word libelle is derived from the Latin libellus, for “small book.” Although originally it was used to describe pamphlets in general, it became primarily applicable to the genre of brief and defamatory attacks on pre-revolutionary French public figures. The 1762 edition of the dictionary published by the Académie française defines libelle as an “offensive work.” The publishers of libelles were known as libellistes.
Format and Style
Libelles varied widely in format and style. Early libelles consisted of either a half-sheet or a single sheet in octavo format. Some later libelles, published in the eighteenth-century for example, were book-length. Regardless of their format, the libelles were cohesive in their overblown and sensationalist style; they were full of wordplay, and often employed literary techniques such as metaphor. The libelles were defiant of authority, and spoke out against prominent individuals.
Libelles were invariably of a political nature, both slanderous and subversive. They proliferated during times of political crises, from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.
Religious conflict - 1580s
In the 1580s, during the French Wars of Religion, libelles flourished, with an average of about one occasionnel published per day in Paris. Libelles were published in support of both the Catholic and the Protestant points of view. Catholic libelles were typically pointed at the King, attacking his character, primarily his weak religious beliefs, and portraying him as not only godless, but evil. The Protestant libelles accused the Catholic League of treasonously supporting the pope.
La Fronde - 1648-1653
During the civil war known as the Fronde, libelles proliferated in France, numbering around 5,000 between the years 1648-1653. During the Fronde, the majority of libelles were directed against Cardinal Mazarin, the chief minister of France. These libelles were referred to as Mazarinades. They ridiculed Mazarin for a wide variety of things, including his low birth, his luxurious proclivities and speculated on his erotic liaison with the Queen Mother, Anne of Austria. One of the most famous of these characterized Mazarin as follows:
Buggering bugger, buggered bugger,
Bugger to the supreme degree,And bugger of the purest mixture…
Hairy bugger and feathered bugger,
Bugger in large and small volume,
Bugger sodomizing the State,
These libelles excited concerns on the part of the government. Presumably alarmed by the seditious possibilities of the libelles, the Parlement of Paris issued an ordinance against libellistes, declaring that anyone caught producing such pamphlets would be hanged. This ran the business of libelles underground, and many libellistes relocated to Holland—or affected to on the title pages; there they continued to publish their slander.
Pre-Revolution - 1770s-1780s
Perhaps the most numerous and scathing libelles came out of the two decades prior to the French Revolution. Darnton lists five ways in which the libelles of the 1770s and 1780s differed from their ancestors. First, the later libelles differed in their scale. Eighteenth-century libelles were much heftier volumes than their single (or half) sheet predecessors. Some libelles of this period ran as large as thirty-six volumes. The fact that such pamphlets were beginning to be compiled into books increased the longevity of the libelles. Second, the system which distributed the libelles had changed. The publishing industry which circulated eighteenth-century libelles was increasingly vast, and no longer localized. Third, the way in which the libelles attacked public figures had advanced. In eighteenth-century libelles, the sex lives of the public figures who were attacked were contextualized as contemporary history. Fourth, the way that libelles conceptualized their victims had changed. Even when earlier libelles attacked Louis XIV, a sense of respect and even deference was implied in the writings. By the 1770s, the way that the libelles conceptualized Louis XV was much less respectful, and implied that the monarch was a mere womanizer, with no interest in state affairs. Marie Antoinette fared even worse, as the number of pornographic libelles that involved her proliferated into the revolutionary era. Fifth, later libelles seemed to criticize monarchy as a system, whereas early libelles only attacked individual figures. It was implied in the earlier pamphlets that individual figures, such as Mazarin, were responsible for the State’s problems. With the libelles of the later years, however, the attack was focused against the entire governmental system, and monarchy as a whole.
- In late Middle English and Early Modern English, libelle retained its aboriginal significance of a "little book": The Libelle of Englyshe Polycye (1435-38), for example, was a little poetical tract concerning England's maritime power, with nothing libellous in its content.
- Darnton 1995, p.199.
- Darnton 1995, p.204.
- Darnton and Roche 1989, p.167.
- Darnton 1995, p.216.
- Darnton 1995, p.206.
- Darnton 1995, p.207.
- Darnton 1995, p.200.
- Darnton 1995, p.212.
- Darnton 1995, p.213.
- Darnton 1995, p.226.
- Darnton, Robert (1995). The forbidden best-sellers of pre-revolutionary France. New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-03720-7.
- Darnton, Robert; Roche, Daniel (1989). Revolution in print: the press in France, 1775-1800. Berkeley: University of California Press in collaboration with the New York Public Library. ISBN 0-520-06430-5.
Schechter, Ronald (2001). The French Revolution: the essential readings. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell. pp. 110–37. ISBN 0-631-21270-1. Robert Darnton’s essay entitled “The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France.”
Opinion; Voltaire; Nature Et Culture (Studies on Voltaire & the Eighteenth Century). Oxford: Voltaire Foundation. 2007. pp. 151–239. ISBN 0-7294-0918-X. Robert L. Dawson’s essay entitled “Naughty French books and their imprints during the long eighteenth century.”